- Special Projects
For nearly six decades, Koko Crater Stables — Oahu’s last municipal equestrian facility — has provided horseback riding and lessons to thousands of casual riders and beginners.
In recent years, however, the city-owned facility struggled to stay afloat, while its stables and buildings crumbled.
Now, under its latest managers, the grounds have been resuscitated.
But the mission has changed, and that’s sparking a feud over who should control Koko Crater Stables and whom the facility should serve.
Instead of a focus on casual riding for the public, Koko Crater Stables has largely morphed into a training grounds for elite, competitive riding using a herd of 20 privately owned horses boarded there.
“It’s like a private stable,” boarder Sandra Downey said last week as she walked the grounds with her 13-year-old therapy horse, James. “To go under the guise that this is for the community is so false. This should be used by everyone.”
The company managing Koko Crater Stable, Horse Haven, maintains that it does make available some lessons for beginners and casual riders, and that the focus on elite riding makes the most sense for the 10-acre property nestled in the back side of the crater.
The company is on the cusp of signing a deal with the city to manage the property for the next five years.
The situation has exposed the sometimes cutthroat competition within Oahu’s equestrian community. Each of the two bidders claims the other was unqualified, and each claims it’s being bullied by its rival’s supporters.
It’s grown so heated that Honolulu Police were called to the stables Tuesday to take a report from Horse Haven over the threats and vitriol it says it’s receiving on social media.
Furthermore, questions remain about the city’s process in awarding the contract for the property, which is still ongoing. The land was deeded to the city by Bishop Estate in 1928, and the stables aim to reflect Princess Bernice Pauahi’s love of horsemanship, those familiar with the facility say.
“My preference is that we have an operation that meets the vision of Princess Pauahi, which means serving the community as a municipal equestrian facility,” interim City Councilman Mike Formby said in a text message. Koko Crater Stables falls within his district.
The administration should “undertake a fair and transparent procurement process awarding the concession,” Formby added.
Koko Crater Stables launched in 1962 shortly before the city closed a similar municipal stables called the Town and Country in Kapiolani Park, according to Oahu native and veterinarian Emogene Yoshimura.
Yoshimura learned to ride as a girl in Kapiolani Park and she later ran Koko Crater Stables until 2015, when new city requirements made it impossible for her to continue, she said.
During her tenure, Yoshimura helped cover expenses by boarding about 25 horses from private owners at a time. Notably, however, she also kept 12 of her company’s own school horses there, making them available to beginners and casual riders at $45 a lesson, she said.
“My goal was to share the joy of riding with the public,” Yoshimura said Tuesday.
She estimates during 25 years operating the stables for the city, she provided 10,000 horseback lessons, many to “dead beginners” who were new to riding.
“Nobody owned their own horse. They used our horses — my little herd of 12 horses,” Yoshimura said. “It’s very expensive to ride a horse. Horses cost a lot of money.”
Her operation hit a setback about 10 years ago when the city prohibited her from using its botanical gardens next door for trail rides, she said.
In 2015, the situation became untenable, Yoshimura said. The city awarded her its latest competitive 5-year contract to keep running the stables but it also added language prohibiting caretakers from living on site, she said. Although no one could live there, the new contract still required the stables to be manned around the clock, she added.
Yoshimura and others in the local horse community stressed that experienced caretakers ought to live on site in case of emergency, such as a fire. Security guards, by contrast, wouldn’t be trained for how to properly handle such events — and they’d be too expensive for round-the-clock patrols, Yoshimura said.
After more than a half-century of involvement at the stables, she opted not to sign the new contract.
When the owners of Horse Haven LLC took over the property about a year later they found it in “utter ruins,” company co-owner Jane Mount said.
“Nobody would take that project on — it was too far gone,” Mount said Tuesday. “The property was in such bad shape, it wasn’t going to happen with Band-Aids.”
Nonetheless, Mount and her three partners, including her husband, Jerry, raised about $150,000 in loans and donations plus free labor from community members to help fix and reopen the stables, she said.
The Horse Haven owners have run Koko Crater stables for the past 2 1/2 years via city-issued revocable permits. They’ve set up a nonprofit, the Koko Crater Stables Community Education Foundation, to help continue the work and host equestrian events. They’ll host a free horse show there in early May.
Under their new management, however, the municipal facility’s mission has changed.
The broken-in school horses that Yoshimura made available to the public are gone. The 20 horses currently boarded at Koko Crater are either owned by private tenants — who pay $811 a month to board their animals there — or the Mounts, who board four of their horses there, Mount said.
With those animals, Horse Haven runs a school for “hunter-jumping” — a competitive and advanced style of riding. About 50 percent of all lessons are given to teenagers who are serious about the sport, Mount said.
“It’s basically a boarder-run facility. It’s people with a lot of money. It’s top-dollar people in that barn,” said Frank Guadagno, a local farrier who’s worked with some of the animals at Koko Crater Stables.
“You’re talking $25,000 horses, $50,000 horses,” Guadagno said.
The facility doesn’t cater to beginners, said Charlie Jordan, a caretaker who now lives on-site. It’s for more experienced riders — any beginners who would attempt to ride the horses there now would risk injury or death, he said.
Those who ask about beginner horseback-riding are referred to private facilities on Oahu, including the stables at Kualoa Ranch, Jordan said.
However, Mount said that several of the private boarders’ aging horses could in fact be used for beginners and that the private boarders who aren’t using their horses allow them to be used by others to take lessons.
Nonetheless, Horse Haven doesn’t plan to buy school horses, she said.
“We can’t be all things to all people,” Mount said Tuesday.
So Koko Crater Stables now specializes in training competitive equestrian athletes. “That’s what our program is known for and we’re very proud of that, frankly,” she said.
The hunter-jumper school makes more sense since Horse Haven can’t access the botanical garden trails, Mount said. Any basic horseback riding would be confined to a relatively small, 10-acre site, she said.
It’s the same issue that stymied Yoshimura about a decade ago.
The veterinarian said she’s grateful the Mounts put the effort into preserving the Koko Crater Stables. Some city officials wanted to lump it into the botanical garden instead.
But Horse Haven’s “mission statement is a lot different than mine,” Yoshimura said Tuesday.
“They do have experience and they do a good job,” she said. “But my only concern is there’s no place for the public to learn to ride horses unless they own a horse.”
The latest contract put out by the city to bid to run Koko Crater Stables for the next five years requires the operator to “provide horse training, riding lessons, horse boarding, and equestrian type educational seminars to the public.”
Horse Haven meets that with its focus on competitive riding lessons, according to Mount.
But another local instructor, Kim Hollandsworth of Aloha Riding Lessons in Waimanalo looked to run a program similar to what Yoshimura once offered at Koko Crater Stables — one she said would be more in line with the city’s intent.
She challenged Horse Haven for the contract and delivered the more lucrative bid. But she still lost under circumstances that raised concerns with Formby, a former city department head who’s familiar with the procurement process.
“It certainly appeared unconventional,” Formby said in a text. What he saw caused him “to question whether the procurement followed standard … policies and procedures.”
Officials in the city’s purchasing division contacted Hollandsworth in December about bidding for the contract, records show. She was reluctant at first, but when Hollandsworth visited Koko Crater she changed her mind.
She could have boarded her nine school horses and one hunter-jumper on the site and make them available to Oahu’s “barn rats” — kids who wanted to learn how to ride and care for horses but who lacked the means to own one.
Still, Hollandsworth wasn’t sure she would even qualify to bid. The city required applicants to have been in business for at least a year and grossed at least $100,000 in a year. Aloha Riding Lessons had officially opened in March 2018. It hadn’t grossed $100,000 yet, but it was on course to make more than that by the end of its first year, she told city officials.
The city worked with her.
On Jan. 29, it declared Hollandsworth a qualified bidder. Two days later she submitted the most competitive bid. She offered to pay the city $1,513 in monthly rent — more than twice as much as Horse Haven’s $720 bid.
City officials scheduled a Feb. 4 “pre-award” meeting with her.
Almost as soon as Hollandsworth outbid Horse Haven, Horse Haven encouraged its boarders to lobby city officials to disqualify her.
“Ms. Hollandsworth, officially the highest bidder, does not meet the Mandatory Minimum Requirements to bid on the Concession and should never have been allowed to participate as a qualified bidder,” the group told supporters in a Feb. 3 email. “We will be contesting her participation on these grounds.”
“Many of you have asked how you might help. We can all help the City reach the proper conclusion. Time is of the essence.”
The email then provided contacts for Mayor Kirk Caldwell, the parks and recreation director and other city officials.
The next day, Hollandsworth said city purchasing officials requested she provide proof she had paid rent to her current facility, DLT Stables in Waimanalo. Emails to the city show she provided them payment invoices. The request struck her as strange, she said.
During the next two weeks, email correspondence shows Hollandsworth asked city officials to clarify the process and what would happen next. But she didn’t get answers.
Then, on the morning of March 5, an officer in the city’s purchasing division, John Francis Sapigao, called Hollandsworth and told her she needed to pay the general excise taxes she owed within 30 minutes or she would be disqualified, Hollandsworth said.
The issue had never come up before, she said.
Frantic, she drove toward town from Waimanalo to try and make that deadline. She pulled over in Aina Haina when she realized she could pay online and completed the payment within the hour — but not within 30 minutes, she said. The city disqualified her.
“I know you stated it was too late but I wanted you to see I followed through on what I said I would do,” Hollandsworth wrote in an email to Sapigao later that day.
City officials declined to discuss the details of the Koko Crater Stables procurement.
“We absolutely contested it,” Mount said Tuesday. “We put (in) a lot of time … we weren’t going to just let it go.”
Mount said she didn’t know if her flash campaign to sway city officials led to Hollandsworth’s disqualification. “You’d have to ask the city,” she said.
“It’s vicious,” Hollandsworth said of the situation.
She and a core group of horse enthusiasts who support her say Horse Haven should be disqualified because the caretakers live on site. The five-year contract does prohibit using the site for “lodging and sleeping purposes,” but Mount says the owners received permission for caretakers to live there before accepting their temporary permit in 2016.
Horse Haven did receive permission for management to be on duty for 24 hours, according to city spokesman Andrew Pereira. However, he wasn’t sure whether that meant caretakers could live there. He said it would probably come up in the city’s review.
Horse Haven, meanwhile, expects to keep its caretakers living on-site should it receive the five-year contract, according to Mount.
“It says you can have a 24-hour manned office — it doesn’t say what needs to be in the office,” she said of the city contract. “Their language is their language.”
Formby voiced concerns about the procurement last week to Caldwell’s managing director, Roy Amemiya. “I left the ball in his court to make the final determination,” Formby said in a text Monday.
Hollandsworth is weighing whether to formally challenge her disqualification.
Whomever prevails, local horse enthusiasts hope the stables will keep Hawaii’s longtime equestrian tradition alive and accessible to everyone on Oahu — not just those who can afford to own a horse.
“Horse places are like barns — they’re all disappearing,” Yoshimura said. “It’s very important that Koko Crater stay open as a stable to the public.”
Over 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers in the U.S. have ceased operations since 2004 — among them the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Weekly. Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases.
Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor.
We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our small newsroom with a tax-deductible gift.